Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strong Characters (Audience participation post!)

Although not strictly science- or space-based, this post has been kicking around my mind for a while. I decided that today (when my sinuses are trying to kill me and I don't quite have the energy to talk about exploding meteorites in Terra Nova), would be a good time to write it. And fair warning, I am going to Use Examples from Harry Potter, because JK Rowling not only provided good examples, but most of the world already knows what happened in the end so I don't feel bad about possible spoilers. Sorry to those three people in the developed world who haven't read Harry Potter. Well done.

Actually, it's not so much the blog post that's been rattling in my head so much as the question: what makes a strong character "strong"?

Several people have written all over the internet that "strong", when we're talking about characterisation, does not automatically imply physical strength (particularly relevant when we're talking about strong female characters, but that's not quite the point I want to raise today). I want to talk about emotional strength and skip the argument as to whether that's equal to physical strength.

Strong characters in Harry Potter.
It is easy to identify characters that lie at extreme ends of the emotional strength spectrum. The hero/ine who sacrifices a lot to save her friends/village/the world is almost certainly going to be a strong character because (assuming it's a good story) they are going to have various obstacles to overcome, both physical and emotional, perhaps stemming from their flaws. Antagonists in some ways have less stringent requirements. Voldemort won't allow anyone to stand in his way (making him strong, if Evil), but Wormtail spends his time attaching himself to strong people around him (first James and Sirius, later Voldemort). And I'm sure he's described as "snivelling" at least once; a clear indication of a weak character.

There are other situations when the distinctions between weak and strong are less cut and dried. There's the character who does the right thing for the wrong reasons or the character who does the wrong thing for the right reasons. There's Snape who did very difficult things for love and, ultimately fought on the side of Good. He didn't do it for noble reasons (in my opinion) like the lead trio, but he still had to be very strong to prevent Voldemort from catching on.

What about the character who is so strongly affected by something (a death, a breakup) that they have difficulty functioning? Are they stronger or weaker than the character who represses their emotions or (for whatever reason) doesn't feel anything? It seems clear to me that the character who is terribly saddened but still carries on through their hurt is emotionally strong. (Although, if you want to argue in the comments, knock yourselves out.) I ask you, which is "stronger": character A, who can't come to terms with the terminal illness of character C and avoids them because they hurt too much to see them suffer, or character B who isn't as emotionally affected but stays by character C out of a sense of duty? It's a grey area, although I'm sure character C would appreciate B more, especially from a practical point of view. (And character D who is heart-broken but stays around anyway would be the clear winner, but they aren't always an option.)

On the other hand, the character who isn't scared can't be brave.

What are your thoughts on the matter? What makes a strong character for you? What are some good examples of weak and strong characters in fiction?


  1. If you want to go with Harry Potter, I think Luna Lovegood is just about the strongest character. At one stage, I was SO hoping that Harry would end up with her instead ;-) Ginny is not a strong character.

    Luna is strong because she doesn't waver in her (admittedly weird) beliefs, but she is consistent and does not let fear change her mind.

    I think a strong character is where you can easily predict what they're going to do. A weak character, not so much, unless you know their motives. It becomes interesting when some outside influence forces someone to change and either become more strong or more weak than they were before.

    Also, I dispute the sometimes implied notion that strong is good and weak is not good. I think strong is someone who has a very effective internal bulsshit indicator, and measures the world by this internal yardstick. A weak character is someone who is easily influenced by their environment. In reality of course, everyone is a bit of each.

  2. I think Neville is one of the strongest characters because, like Harry he faces piles of adversity which he overcomes but, unlike Harry, he doesn't get to be the Chosen One while doing it. Even from the first book when he stands up to the trio he's fighting for what he thinks is right even though standing up to your friends can be harder than standing up to your enemies. And also requires more of a choice to be made (whereas fighting Evil is more of a no-brainer).

    (And yes, I like Luna too. She reminds me of a close friend from school who also never let others change her beliefs.)

    I have to think about your definition of strong and weak. I can see where you're coming from, but I'm not sure if I agree. For example, I can think of a few stories where the main character develops an internal yardstick while learning to see the world a different way, but were strong from the beginning. Hmm. Interesting food for thought.

    What prompted this post was a character I've been writing. When I invented her it was as a bit of a joke to mock the cliched action hero who runs around killing things and not feeling any remorse (and hence is a bit of a psychopath). But then I started thinking about it more seriously and, actually, if you dial it back a bit the line between strong (in the sense of able to overcome emotional obstacles) and psychopathic (not feeling the relevant emotions as strongly) is not as distinct as you might think. (And for the record, not all psychopaths are serial killers, they are often CEOs and also make good telemarketers -- true story.)

    On the other hand, the quintessential weak character for me is someone who is (or can be in the course of the story) broken by some event (which may be trivial or tragic, depending on the type of story). The kind of character you want to grab by the shoulders and shake some sense into because whatever they're doing (wallowing, giving up) is frustratingly to their detriment. Which now that I think on it, matches up with your definition.

    Also, both strong and weak characters can make good reading, so long as the story isn't populated exclusively with weak charaters (IMHO).

  3. Weird as it sounds, I conform to the Rocky Balboa school of thought - "It ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done."

    To me strength is about overcoming the odds. Be it emotional or physical, what makes us strong is what we can take and keep going. Now in saying that I should clarify that failure doesn't mean one is weak, but rather how one deals with it is. If character A has trouble dealing with the serious illness of character B and breaks down, that's fine. To me his strength won't be judged by his breakdown reaction, but rather what happens afterwards. If he runs away and refuses to deal with it then that, to me, is a weak character. If, on the other hand, he pulls himself together as best he can and tries to make right his breakdown, then that is strength.

    Strength to me is about how you deal with things. If you confront an event that isn't hard for you, I question if that is strength. It's not weakness, but it doesn't take strength to deal with something that provokes no reaction. On the other hand, something that provokes an extreme reaction takes strength to overcome. I feel strength is about overcoming the setbacks, picking yourself up when you fail, and trying to find a way.

    Still, it's an extremely interesting topic, thinking what others see as strength or weakness.

  4. I think that's a good way of putting it, Dante. "Strength to me is about how you deal with things."

    As for characters A running away from dealing with terminally ill character B, another interesting question. How strong or weak is character A if they realise they were running away and not dealing only after B is dead? Does their remorse redeem them [partially/not at all/almost completely]?


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